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The 2021 edition of Fuji Rock Festival should have been a breakthrough moment for Japan’s live music scene. After COVID-19 canceled last summer’s slate of music gatherings, many hoped this August to be a return to semi-normalcy and a chance for a financially battered industry to begin rebounding.

It hasn’t played out that way. Fellow major summer events Rock in Japan Festival and Rising Sun Rock Festival were canceled yet again due to an increase in new infections, which continue to rise across the country. Fuji Rock will press on, holding a “Special Fuji Rock under Special Circumstances” from Aug. 20 to 22 in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture.

The usual excitement that surrounds the gathering seems to be lacking, though. Attendance will be limited, there will be fewer stages, shortened hours and no alcohol allowed. For many, watching livestreamed performances on YouTube will be the main way to experience the proceedings. While that’s a welcome option, after 17 months of pretending at-home concerts on your laptop can take the place of that summer festival vibe, the format really just reminds us of how nothing has gone back to “normal.” That Fuji Rock is happening at all while the country goes through a COVID-19 surge that is significantly worse than last summer also feels unsettling.

Perhaps it’s better to think of Fuji Rock 2021 as more of a guide to what’s happening in the Japanese music industry. This year’s lineup consists entirely of domestic artists, and organizer Smash has done a good job selecting acts, particularly new ones, that represent a variety of trends.

Whether you want to plan out your YouTube viewing schedule or would just like to hear who the kids are talking about these days, The Japan Times has highlighted a diverse selection of acts to check out.

4s4ki (pronounced Asaki) | COURTESY OF FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL
4s4ki (pronounced Asaki) | COURTESY OF FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL

Rock reimagined

Rock has always had a strong presence at Fuji Rock, and those seeking out familiar interpretations of the style have plenty of options this year. Radwimps offer a J-pop-inspired take on the genre as headliners on Friday, while those looking for something a bit more lively should head over to see Number Girl on Saturday night. Man With A Mission will also be around for those who want an alien wolf fantasy to go with their guitars.

One of the key features of this year’s lineup, however, is an assortment of younger acts that are redefining what Japanese rock can look and sound like, from the psych-tinged slacker rock of Tempalay to the chugging sing-a-longs of DYGL to the more dramatic creations of Hitsuji Bungaku.

Saturday headliner King Gnu is a standout example of an act that’s messing around with the rules of rock. The quartet, which debuted on Fuji Rock’s Rookie A Go-Go stage in 2017 and has now moved up to the main Green Stage, rocketed to Japanese stardom thanks to wonky but well-constructed songs with lyrics that focus on the struggles of modern Japanese life.

Another act making major headway is Chai. The band has become an international darling in the past few years thanks to its playful brand of rock that pokes fun at beauty standards and celebrates the self (all while shouting out the members’ favorite foods). The group’s latest album, “Wink,” is its most sonically eclectic, but with Chai’s distinctive lyrical upbeatness still in check.

As is often the case, the Rookie A Go-Go stage remains a go-to spot to discover up-and-coming gems. Trio Ms. Machine released one of the year’s best albums with its eponymous debut, a steely and asserted set of songs that feature an undercurrent of feminist politics. The band is set to close out the weekend after the rollicking pop punk of Haiki on Friday, the bedroom shoegaze of Acidclank on Saturday and the general oddballery of Koenji-based project Stap Sigh Boys on Sunday afternoon.

The single best rock act at Fuji Rock — and in all of Japan right now — is a creator gleefully mashing genres together to create something new. 4s4ki (pronounced Asaki) refers to her sonic mish-mash as “new punk,” though she has plenty of crossover with the emerging “hyperpop” style mixing blown-out bass, rapped vocals and Warped Tour vibes together into a very online sound. Her recently released full-length “Castle in Madness” blends elements of dance and rap with a heavy dose of rock, topped off by 4s4ki’s emotive vocals.

Summit | COURTESY OF FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL
Summit | COURTESY OF FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL

Rap rising

Fuji Rock has never shied away from Japanese hip-hop, but this year’s show highlights acts that are hitting their stride in the mainstream.

The peak comes from the Summit crew, which features such prominent names as Punpee, Vava and Kid Fresino (who will also perform solo on the White Stage). Newer voices like 5lack and Sound’s Deli are worth checking out.

Hip-hop’s biggest breakout of the year, though, comes courtesy of a producer who excels at instrumentals. Beatmaker Stuts scored a surprise hit with “Presence,” which was featured as the ending theme to the popular Fuji TV drama, “My Dear Exes.” He’ll put on a “band set” on Sunday, but the Gen Hoshino-approved creator deserves a deep dive as he’s helped shape the sound of modern Japanese rap.

Awesome City Club | COURTESY OF FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL
Awesome City Club | COURTESY OF FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL

The new faces of J-pop

Generally, J-pop has existed on the fringes of Fuji Rock, but it has become more prominent at the festival in recent years. This year’s three pop-infused headliners, for example — the aforementioned Radwimps and King Gnu, plus Fuji staples Denki Groove — tower above the rest in terms of visibility, but a few emerging names are present for those wanting to catch up on what’s current.

Awesome City Club scored an unlikely hit earlier this year with “Wasurena,” and the song has become a defining number for J-pop as the months have gone by, landing the band on the Green Stage. Also performing on the main stage is R&B act Sirup. After building hype over the past few years with dizzying tracks showcasing his vocal prowess, Sirup cashed in with the delirious album “cure” earlier this year. Other fresh faces pop up across the lineup, from critically acclaimed, Amuse-backed singer/songwriter Yuta Orisaka to vocalist Milet, who sang at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. (This year’s Fuji Rock also features sets from Misia and Hiromi Uehara, who performed at the opening ceremony.)

While the lineup showcases a lot of newcomers, it also offers the chance to take in established artists who are helping to nurture new talent. Laid-back artist Tendre has a strong following on his own, but he’s written for a variety of new acts, including Fuji Rock participants Aaamyyy and Sirup. Jazz-indebted composer Kan Sano is also all over modern J-pop, adding an electronic edge to the smooth sounds of modern city pop, and helping to produce dozens of new acts. He’s an accomplished solo artist, too, blending funk with electronic experimentation. He performs on Friday, and reminds us why events like this can be so compelling — it’s not only an opportunity to learn about his solo work, but also see how it carries over into the country’s sound at large.

Fuji Rock is set to take place Aug. 20 through 22 at Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture. To watch livestream performances on YouTube, visit www.youtube.com/fujirockfestival. For more information about the festival, go to en.fujirockfestival.com.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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